Women in Innovation: Q&A with Kathryn White

Susie Parker
Senior Marketing Manager - Membership, Policy & Climate Change | Business West
8th March 2019

To celebrate International Women’s Day we caught up with a number of leading business women in the South West. 

We chat to Kathryn White, Innovation Manager at the Environmental Futures & Big Data Impact Lab at Exeter University about her role, women in Innovation, her thoughts on the challenges for the next generation and who inspires her.

1. Tell us a bit about your role? 

I work for the University of Exeter, as the Innovation Manager at the Environmental Futures & Big Data Impact Lab (www.impactlab.org.uk), where we help Devon-based businesses to develop innovative new products, services and processes using complex data analytics. I manage a team of computer scientists who work on collaborative projects with our clients to build the technology at the core of these new ideas. The programme is a partnership of seven world class research organisations.

2. What is a typical working day for you? 

I don’t have a typical day! I’m often dashing around between meetings with different clients, working with them to understand which kinds of support will make the biggest impact in driving their businesses forward. Then a lot of time is spent meeting with my team of technical specialists to check how projects are progressing, liaising with the wider team and the other project partners, and networking with other organisations across the region. Any remaining time is spent at my desk pulling together paperwork, responding to emails, and planning upcoming events.

3. What do you enjoy most about your job? 

I enjoy helping people, whether that’s me directly helping them understand new business concepts or spot new ways to build on their ideas, or whether it’s seeing them excitedly working with our technical team, turning their ideas into reality. I also love the variety – in one day I can go from discussing autonomous vehicles to sheep genetics!

4. What are the most challenging aspects of your job? 

There is a lot to juggle, especially as I’m trying to oversee operations as a whole, whilst also carrying out the job on the ground. I have a lot of pulls on my attention and a lot of deadlines to hit with paperwork to prepare, when I’d really rather spend my time working with my clients.

5. What are 3 key things you think are important to succeed as a woman in business? 

I would rather give 3 key things I think are important for businesses to do to build diversity – the onus should not be on women to behave differently to fit in the business world, but for the business world to recognize the inherent value of having more diverse workers and leaders. 

  • The working environment doesn’t need to be cutthroat and competitive to be successful; collaboration and communication drives innovative thinking and builds a more enjoyable work environment. 
  • We’re often told that women don’t put themselves forward for roles unless they feel they have all the skills, while men will put themselves forward for roles they aren’t qualified for. For some reason this is phrased as though the women are the problem, rather than a recruitment process that manages to prioritise stronger candidates just because they shout the loudest. 
  • I hear a lot of people argue against positive discrimination in hiring, saying ‘I’m going to just compare individual ability and experience against the role criteria’, but this misses two key points: a) roles do not exist in isolation, each role is part of a team, or a management layer, and it’s essential to look at how a new hire will enhance the strategic effectiveness of the organisation, not just do the specific role (and diverse leadership has been consistently shown to improve the bottom line); and b) you are not comparing apples to apples, if one candidate has fought their way through cultural barriers, discrimination, or a disadvantaged background and has managed to reach the same level as someone who didn’t face those challenges, then that speaks volumes about their determination and passion, as well as their ability. 

My only advice for women (and everyone else!) is to be yourself and try to be the best version of you – there is no one ‘right’ way to succeed, so do it your way and don’t let anyone try to tell you that you have to be a certain type of person to make it.

6. What are the biggest challenges for the future generation of women in business? 

The biggest challenge to increasing any kind of diversity will always be from unconscious bias. It’s one thing to tackle problems that people can see and understand, but it’s a whole extra challenge if people don’t even know they’re doing anything wrong.

I think there are some interesting opportunities with technology like virtual reality, to find new ways to expose biases and help put people into the shoes of someone on the receiving end of discrimination. Biases are built in to society through our cultural artefacts, so to start to remove biases we need to look seriously at the representation of women in the media and the way we communicate with young girls and boys (e.g. to avoid talking to girls about their pretty clothes while we ask their brothers about their favourite dinosaur!). 

7. How can we help a younger generation of women be prepared to succeed in life and business? 

Schools and universities need to get better at teaching life skills rather than just facts and knowledge. Encouraging young people to have a go at building a business through workshops gives them the chance to learn through doing – applied learning is much more memorable than just sitting in a classroom listening. We should encourage young people to be curious, and teach them the skills to explore and learn on their own. And we should treat young women the same way we treat young men, AKA don’t teach them their appearance is the most valuable thing about them and don’t act like little girls are precious fragile creatures who need to be protected while little boys are off running, jumping and climbing trees! 

8. Why is it important for women to be involved in innovation and creativity? 

The same reason it’s important for everyone to be involved in innovation and creativity! It’s fun, it helps challenge assumptions and build new ideas, and it helps us connect with the more instinctual side of ourselves and open up.

9. How can we inspire younger generation of women to lead in innovation roles? 

With good role models, and with opportunities for them to experience this kind of work and fall in love with it. Innovation workshops in schools with talks from a diverse set of inspirational speakers could be one way.

10. What women inspire you and why? 

Hedy Lamarr was amazing – she was an inventor as well as being a talented actress, and she didn’t hide her femininity to be taken seriously. As a woman working in tech, I’m also inspired by all the pioneering women who laid the foundations of computer science – Ada Lovelace for inventing programming; the 6 women who cracked the programming of the ENIAC, the first digital programmable computer; Grace Hopper, the inventor of the compiler; the WWII code-crackers at Bletchley Park; and all the other women who are so often written out of the historical record of the industry.


Read more in this series:

Women in Innovation: Q&A with Karen Friendship

Women in Business: Q&A with Emily Kent 

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